Tracey Halvorsen is a blogger, painter, author, speaker and Principal and Creative Director at Fastspot, a Baltimore, Maryland-based interactive agency. I had chance to speak with her about many aspects of running a design business, from social networking to determining budgets to the importance of failure.
Question: What advice would you give to someone considering leaving a full-time job to start a freelance business? When is the “right time” or does that not exist?
I think if you want to run your own show - go for it! There will never be a perfect time to take the plunge, but having a little extra cushion in your bank account doesn’t hurt. If you really want to be a successful freelancer you should build up your network before you cut ties with your full time gig. Get your portfolio in order, make sure your SEO is up to par and your own personal marketing materials are in good shape. You can do these things in your free time while you are still working.
There are a few reasons we don’t work with freelancers that often, but the number one reason is lack of reliability. If you do start freelancing make sure you are incredibly punctual and detail oriented with your initial relationships - building that trust early (be it with an agency or with clients) will be invaluable to building your business. Just because you are freelancing doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about deadlines, deliverables and customer service. I can’t emphasize customer service enough for freelancers. While you do have to make sure clients don’t take advantage of you, when you are starting out, that word of mouth from happy clients is like gold. You should expect to have to “put in your time” at first, while you build up your freelance portfolio and client base. It takes time, patience and hard work. But if you stick with it and treat your clients right, it will turn into a solid business foundation for you.
Most important is to find a balance when you are getting started. You will have to put in more work and effort, and you will be the only one left holding the bag when things go wrong. It will take time for clients to trust you, and to pass your name on to others. Being the best you can be when it comes to direct communication should be your number one priority. I would follow these few basic pointers to ensure your freelance efforts get off the ground in the right way.
- Have a solid portfolio site up and running before you announce your candidacy for freelancer of the year.
- Practice what you preach - if you are selling SEO, have good SEO on your site. If you showcase work with large corporate clients, your potential clients will expect you to be donning a nice shirt and tie for initial meetings.
- Call and email people back! Don’t sit on leads, because people take a lack of response as a lack of interest or as general laziness. Get back to people, follow up, always put the ball back in their court. I call it client service hot potato - if I’m holding it, I’m getting burned.
- Let everyone know, and keep letting them know. Get active on social networks where professionals hang out - Twitter, LinkedIn, the blogosphere. If you aren’t making amazing designs for your first client, write blog posts about good user-experience, post links to great resources, and get involved with the community.
- Get out from behind your computer. Just because you are a freelancer now doesn't mean you get to lounge around in your undies in the basement playing Halo when you aren’t dealing with client work. Networking is critical. Join your local AIGA or similar organizations, go to mixers, conferences, and events - whatever it takes to stay involved.
- Promote your successes! When you land new clients or launch new work, treat it like a business. No reason why you can’t drop a press release to your local business online blog, and definitely make it a feature on your own site. Prospective clients like to see you take pride in your work, and they will be more inclined to hire you if you are keeping your own site and news up-to-date.
- Be nice. Like your mother always said, being nice will get you far in life. No one likes to deal with a combative, obnoxious, egotistical designer or developer. If you know that you tend to be slightly off putting in this regard - take a look in the mirror - would you hire you? Being nice won’t kill you, and it won’t make you seem less professional or competent. In fact, being nice will make others think you are even more confident and secure in your talents.
- Don’t forget to be a good listener. Before you can help a client get what they want, you need to listen to what they need, and being a good listener always makes the client feel more important. Sometimes, it’s the little things that will make the biggest difference!